Friday, 3 September 2010

Street Level: A series of restaurant reviews

A slight decline in the regularity of blog posts on here can be somewhat explained by the fact that I've been busy blogging for the London Restaurant Festival, which takes place across the UK capital next month.

Part of my role is to post restaurant reviews, which for someone who has never professed to being a food critic, seemed at first a little daunting. Fortunately however, the job doesn't call for an in-depth critique (I'll leave that up to the Evening Standard's Fay Maschler, the festival's creator). I simply have to experience each restaurant and produce a creative write-up from a 'Street Level' perspective, thereby showcasing the restaurant's offer to the public.

I thought I'd share with you three such write-ups, not only as an overdue way to update my blog but also to highly recommend three top London restaurants. I hope you enjoy reading my recommendations and for updates on next month's festival, join the Facebook page or visit the website.

Street level: An invitation to Sam’s place
It’s not often that I venture from zone two for an evening’s dining out experience. But when Sam Harrison, the man who partnered with Rick Stein to open Sam’s Brasserie in Chiswick, invited my guest and I to dinner at the duo’s second eatery in Balham, we headed for the gateway to the south.

Harrison’s has been around since October 2007. On occasion I have spent a lazy Sunday afternoon nursing a bottle of red with Balham friends in its relaxed bar. But I’ve never graduated to the 90-cover restaurant, taken my seat underneath the circular brown lampshades and perused the simple menu of classic brasserie-style dishes with a modern twist – until now.

I should point out here that Sam Harrison didn’t actually join us for dinner. If he had have done, we probably would have tried harder to stifle our giggles when my guest asked our waitress what type of bread we were being offered and received the polite friendly reply ‘brown’. She did redeem herself however by explaining to my australian friend what kind of fish sea bream is and the fact that a poussin is a young chicken, without feeling the need to add the rather gruesome fact that it has to be younger than 28 days at slaughter to be classed as such.

For starters, we opted for the sharing platter but added a side order of chilli and garlic grilled squid because you can always tell the quality of a restaurant’s food by the texture of its squid (it obviously helps to eat a lot of squid at various different restaurants to aid the comparison).

The sharing platter was furnished with morsels of buffalo mozzarella, cheese croquettes, pâté and other butcher’s delights, served with flat bread (we resisted the urge to ask again what type of bread this was although the answer would have been both accurate and just as funny).

I’m pleased to report that the squid was tasty and succulent and went extremely well with a mid-priced Argentinian Malbec. It’s also pleasing to report that tap water was regularly topped up throughout our meal and the service was always friendly, attentive but non-intrusive.

For our main course, I couldn’t resist choosing from the Harrison’s Classics section of the menu. I opted for the aged Scottish rib-eye steak which came beautifully presented on a butcher’s board with fries in a pot and bearnaise sauce in a small pan on the side. To me, this choice was in keeping with the relaxed picking and dipping nature of our meal and the steak was cooked to perfection.

My guest experienced her first taste of english sea bream and enjoyed it. I’m sure though she was eying up the amazing looking cheeseburgers delivered to our adjacent table with envy. She consoled herself by giving in far too quickly when our waitress suggested ordering the hot chocolate fondant for dessert. The 15 minute baking time this pudding takes is well worth it but unfortunately it just wasn’t enough time for either of us to have found enough extra room to fully enjoy it. Full to bursting we were both forced to admit defeat and decided to walk the long way back to the tube, determined to return again another day and finish that goddess among desserts.

Street Level: An evening with Andrew Edmunds
I spend far too much money on eating out. It’s one of the inconvenient pleasures of living in a city with 50 Michelin-starred restaurants and hundreds of secret hideaway eateries just waiting to be discovered and then savoured.

Despite a constant urge to try out new places however, I always find myself returning to one of my favourite Soho establishments, Andrew Edmunds on Lexington Street.

Admittedly, Andrew Edmunds receives most of my custom during the winter months. It’s somewhere familiar to escape the drizzle and swap the falling temperatures for the warm dark glow of intimate candle-lit tables, plain white tablecloths, great British food and an extensive red wine list. I wasn’t entirely convinced therefore that I’d made the right choice when, on one of the warmest days of the summer so far, I reached for the phone and booked a table for two downstairs at this charming gourmet bolt-hole.

Maybe I opted for a table downstairs so we could pretend that the balmy summer’s evening unfolding on the street outside was actually a dark winter’s night as we swapped stories over a naked flame and drank a 2006 mid-priced bottle of Argentinian red.

Actually, the real reason I requested downstairs is because that’s where my preferred table is located (the only restaurant where I actually know which table I prefer). Tonight, table 22, side on to all the other diners so that you’re not distracted by their food choices or over-heard snippets of conversation, was available and ours for three straight hours.

My starter choice was the same starter I always go for at this home away from home diner – Dressed Crab (superb). After our very amiable Kiwi waitress Katy had joked about the hand-written menu and then translated the hieroglyphics, my guest went for Lincolnshire asparagus vinaigrette with thin slices of Pecorino cheese.

For main, I went for the Calasparra risotto with squid, mussels, prawns, clams, chorizo and langoustine whilst my guest plumped for the poached wild sea trout, accompanied by Jersey Royals and a watercress mayonnaise. I had definitely plumped for the more flavoursome dish as my seafood arrived infused with chili and was extremely satisfying with just the right amount of heat. The trout looked a tad boring but I was assured that it tasted very nice.

I rarely go for dessert but was quite happy to sip my expresso whilst my guest pondered long and hard over whether to have the peach and almond tart. With no decision reached and a cursory look round to see that most of our fellow diners had departed as it was approaching 11pm, I requested the bill and inspected the damage.

Our meal for two, with wine, coffee and 12.5% service charge came to a very reasonable £79. It was only after the tab was settled that Katy returned to our table with a slice of peach and almond tart and two forks. “There’s only two slices left and I know you were tempted so you have this one and I’m going to save the final slice as a treat for when I finish my shift,” our waitress said with a smile.

It’s service like that which will keep me returning to Andrew Edmunds all year round and sets London’s restaurants apart, in my view, from those anywhere else in the world.

Street Level: Circus has come to town
It’s easy to walk straight past Circus on Endell Street, Covent Garden, if you’re not paying attention. There’s no big top entrance, or street entertainers juggling or hula hooping outside. In fact, there’s nothing to betray the entertainment that awaits within, only a polite doorman who ensures you have the correct destination and bids you a pleasant evening as you enter a short corridor with a cloakroom at the far end, guarding the main doors to the restaurant and cocktail bar.

Since opening in January 2010, I’ve walked through those main doors on two other occasions. My guest for this particular evening had never seen what lies beyond the cloakroom. Her interest was immediately peaked by the Californian-sounding model attendant who took our coats and led us through to the main dining area with its catwalk showpiece table that doubles up as a performance stage.

Aware that the circus-style performances wouldn’t begin until after 8pm, I encouraged a visit to the bar before we settled down to eat. Circus’ bar cocktail list is designed by Henry Besant and the Worldwide Cocktail Club – the team responsible for the bars at Bungalow 8 and Notting Hill’s The Lonsdale. It’s a short but encyclopedic menu of cocktails from which my companion chose a Kumquat & Almond Caipirinha. Unable to decide, I asked the barman to surprise me with a bourbon-based creation. I already knew my drink would taste amazing however it was created so the requested surprise must have been its bright pink coloration when poured into a martini glass.

For dinner, I had the special of marinated steak in a tiger prawn and chorizo dressing whilst she opted for the cajun sea bass (I would have opted for the highly recommended 24 hour slow roasted beef short ribs if the special hadn’t changed my mind). For starters we shared baby squid and chicken and prawn satay skewers. The Circus menu is Pan-American (just like almost all the staff) and, just as on both my previous visits, the baby squid and steaks are divine perfection.

The first indication that a performer is about to take to the stage is the open kitchen’s shutters going down along with the lights. If you’ve timed your food order correctly this will coincide with the end of each course. If not, then it’s a straight choice between melt-in-the-mouth steak in the dark or an aerialist, performing on a hoop above the catwalk table.

On each of my previous visits the performances have been different so you never know what to expect. On my first mid-week visit, we stayed all night and witnessed the acts grow ever-more burlesque as the evening draws on. This time however was a Friday night and the DJ was playing more to the bar crowd than the diners who wished to talk. So after a hula-hoop girl, a fire-dancer and the aerialist, we settled the bill, saved our vocal chords and made our escape.

Thankfully, with Circus now catering for weekday and weekend brunch menus and quieter mid-week sittings, there are better times to plan a visit to ensure you get the full performance and dining experience in Covent Garden’s unique cabaret restaurant. The popularity of this particular Circus has ensured that it’s not about to leave town any time soon.